In glowing, resplendent sketches, Caroline Wells Chandler and Jennifer Coates toy and goad, daring each other with a shared delight in the sticky, sloppy, and kitsch. From embellishing Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre, 1905-1906, with sock-covered erections, to imagining Elmo and Furline Huskie as twinned testicles on a blue, cotton-ball form, Chandler and Coates stretch the figural possibilities and age-ratings of familiar cultural characters both high and low. Driving towards the pleasure of the collaborator’s laughter, Chandler and Coates’s jokes are both challenging and cheap, simultaneously nullifying the universe by eraser-point and starting the disco again with a dime slipped to a place between two bottom cheeks. These vibrant, dynamic drawings chart the shameless explorations of a collaborative duo determined to riff on the roots of queerness, formalism, and art historical narrative through a fluid chicken soup of protean humor and spunk.
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Chandler, Coates, Humphrey, Dufresne, and Kaack. For the full transcript, please follow this link. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition ELECTRIC MAYHEM.
David Humphrey: Here’s a straight question. I’m just going to pitch the ball. What is modern art to you guys?
Angela Dufresne: I agree. I think that question is screaming in this room.
David Humphrey: You’ve got this Matisse Luxe, Calme et Volupté thing going.
Jennifer Coates: I have a crush on modernism, on early modernist painting, because I teach it. The first year I taught it, I wasn’t feeling it. Matisse, Picasso, whatever. The dudes. But I crushed harder and harder the more I taught it. I just want to reproduce the utopian freedom of that moment with this kind of idealism.
David Humphrey: Didn’t you have books of modern art out while drawing? It’s almost a third collaborator. Sort of Grandpa Modern Art.
Caroline Wells Chandler: I feel like art history always is, though. At least for me. I know it is for you.
Jennifer Coates: We have fun giving each other assignments. I want you to find something from a Bosch painting or from Ensor, and just play around very irresponsibly.
Caroline Wells Chandler: Have fun with it.
Angela Dufresne: Irresponsibility —the uncivilized or uncolonized imagination— is a big aspect of many movements in modernism, right? I’m more in Northern Europe, right now, in my own understanding. From the perspective of a performative kind of space, though, how do you hide? Besides execution, how does this play out in your daily life and help you survive the madness?
Jennifer Coates: It just sucks up the seriousness a little bit. Put an erection on it and put a sock on the erection.
Caroline Wells Chandler: Or it could just be a floating sock. Either way.
David Humphrey: Pin the erection on the donkey drawing.
Caroline Wells Chandler: I haven’t answered your question. I don't know exactly. But I do think about the fact that the centerpiece of the zine is The Joi of Lyfe. Find the staples.
Jennifer Coates: The centerfold. No one can have that, by the way, because it’s mine and it’s not for sale.
Caroline Wells Chandler: In the original painting, there are two figures that look like that. The nymph with the broken back and a clock covering the crotch. I always think about taking things that feel like a hetero gaze and then queering it up for fun. I’m into a lot of it, but I like to do something that feels affirmationally queer as well.
David Humphrey: There’s something so funny about that moment where the most conventional idiom —nudes in the landscape, still life, pastoral scenery— is the location of avant-garde experimentation and innovation. You’re echoing that because now Modern art is in museums. Queering that work is doing again what they have done to Claude Lorrain, or something.
Angela Dufresne: Breton used the word “queer” in the Surrealist Manifesto. My friend Tomaso De Luca said that Picasso is the queerest artist he knows. And there is nobody more on top of G-A-Y than Tomaso in many ways. He’s a scholar of Patrick Angus’ work. He’s a total esoteric gay knowledge whore. I was painting his portrait not too long ago and, in this beautiful Milanese accent, he says, “Picasso is the gayest artist on the planet. Still!”
Nicole Kaack: What makes you say that?
Angela Dufresne: Many of the ways we think about transgression —or disidentification as Esteban Muñoz would say— is to shift the register of our perception of things. To reconfigure how we conceive of ideas and forms, all of these genres, all of these tropes. He did that to all of them, fucked with them. He broke down these normative ways of seeing bodies and cultures as separate, and fucked up the ontology of things, moving away from the logic of Enlightenment thinking.
David Humphrey: That’s what we try to do as artists more or less. It’s a rolling act of rebellion, which involves questioning all assumptions and shuffling them out to see what can emerge that is different.
Nicole Kaack: I was reading something about the figure of the trickster, this person stealing from god to give to the mortals. There are ways of subverting the systems and uprooting, that the artist’s role is to fuck things up. I’m wary of using the queer in the context of Picasso, largely for fear of overusing it in a way that devalues its meaning.
Jennifer Coates: Well, the etymology of the word “queer” goes back to the proto-Indo European word “terkw” which means twisted. Queer and distortion both go back to the same thing.
Angela Dufresne: It’s interesting that you say that. I’m thinking about Mannerism right now. Really, maybe, the Modernists started with the Mannerists. That distortion that identifies something interior which has no physiological articulation gets Mannerist.
Jennifer Coates: Right. Distortion —to twist, to torment, to torture— these are all the same thing. Poetry overlaps the things.
David Humphrey: Torque.
Angela Dufresne: I’m not even into S&M, but that sounds great. It sounds very useful.
Nicole Kaack: I was reading something that you wrote or contributed to, David, and in it you say something to the effect that painting is about memory, which I thought of as interesting in the context of these drawings which are about developing a language together. But also about this surreal forgetting too.
David Humphrey: I think I was making a point about observational painting. That you can’t really observe and draw at the same time because you actually look away from the thing while you make the mark, so you rely upon memory. That little space, opens up to what? Mind, association, convention, the whole world of interiority and the brain. Everything that we do, hopefully, as artists is tangled in a layered consciousness. Even the dumbest conventional activity is somehow tangled in subjectivity. I think what’s so mad about these is that you softened the boundaries between each other. These drawings potentially turn this thing of subjectivity collective.
Caroline Wells Chandler: One thing that happens when you’re drawing with somebody is that they’ll do something and you have to solve this pictorial space. As long as you insert references that you think the other will know, like Jen bringing this awesome Stonehenge. Then in “Muppets in Space,” Gonzo’s trying to get in contact with the others so “R U there?” is spelled out across the screen. Someone seeing it might think that’s an error in spelling. But I knew that you would know that that’s a screen capture from the Muppets. And I was working on it and sent it to you, and I thought, okay, that was funny.
David Humphrey: But it looks like the T is escaping from the word “there,” to kind of isolate the word “here.” Stepping onto the henge.
Jennifer Coates: It’s used like a standing stone there, too.
David Humphrey: So maybe it’s “rut.” “Rut here.”